Novelist Matthew Dicks creates lovably odd heroes
Matthew Dicks describes his daily routine as "extremely careful and meticulous. I'm always planning two steps ahead or looking around restaurants to see where the exits are."
Perhaps, then, it's not surprising that Matthew Dicks' two novels, "Something Missing" and the brand new "Unexpectedly, Milo" (344 pages, Broadway Books), feature protagonists who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The only problem: Dicks didn't realize "Missing's" Martin Railsback was OCD until the book was published and someone pointed it out to him. As for the titular Milo, Dicks had no plans on writing about another OCD character until he was well into the manuscript and realized it had organically happened.
"I know certain things when I start a novel - core elements of the plot - but as I write, things evolve and characters develop and I just trust that stuff will work out," Dicks says.
He's sitting with his wife, Elysha, and their 18-month-old daughter, Clara, at Captain Scott's Lobster Dock in New London. It's a gorgeous Saturday, and the family is on an exploratory day trip to the region. Residents of Newington - Matt and Elysha teach at the same elementary school in West Hartford - they haven't spent much time in southeastern Connecticut. Since Dicks is making an appearance Tuesday at Bank Square Books in Mystic, it seemed a fine excuse to get out for a drive.
"Unexpectedly, Milo" is a delightful, bittersweet and wonderfully funny story of Milo Slade, a 33-year-old home care nurse going through a separation from his high-powered attorney wife, Christine. She seems to have nothing to say to him anymore, and part of the problem might be that he has somehow managed to keep his OCD compulsions a secret throughout their relationship.
Given that these include opening jelly jars, singing "99 Luftballoons" at karaoke bars and repeating certain words like "conflagration" over and over until he has to act on it or go mad, the masquerade hasn't been easy.
The separation takes on added complexity when Milo finds a discarded video camera in the park, along with a bag of numbered videos. He begins watching the videos in all innocence - simply to find out the identity of the owner so he can return the property - and discovers a series of heartbreaking confessionals from an anonymous young woman who apparently feels responsible for the deaths of two of her friends.
Touched by the material - and possibly because he's OCD - Milo's mission grows from just wanting to return the camera and tapes to a simmering need to comfort and help the woman. The trail leads him across several states and through interaction with an array of wonderfully bizarre characters. Eventually, Milo begins to learn that there is beauty and humanity in people's respective flaws. Maybe even his own.
"When I started, I knew Milo was going to be going through a divorce, and I knew about the camera, but that's it," Dicks says. "Then, suddenly, as I was writing, the word 'conflagration' popped into Milo's head. On the page. There it was. And one thing led to another, and I realized his OCD was a very big part of his story."
"Something's Missing," which came out last year and is similarly witty and touching, features a career thief, Martin, whose credo is to steal from homes only the objects the owners won't miss. Increasingly, the meticulous Martin spends secret time getting to know the victims - ultimately wanting to serve as a sort of guardian angel over them as their lives unfold.
Now 39, Dicks says he wanted to be a writer since junior high school in Blackstone, Mass. But it took a while to get focused - which is something that he finds amazing given the fact that he literally has died twice. When he was 12, a reaction to a bee sting - he didn't know he was allergic - was fatal until paramedics broke down the door of his house and revived him. And after a car accident when he was 17, Dicks was lying dead on the side of the road before medical personnel again brought him back.
"You'd think that would cause me to realize that life is precious and there are no guarantees," says Dick, shaking his head at the recollections. "I can see, maybe, at 12 not realizing the significance. But at 17, I should have started to seriously get focused. Yet I continued to procastinate. It makes me feel incredibly stupid."
At 23, though, while managing a fast food restaurant, Dicks was held up at gunpoint. The event served as a hugely emotional wake-up. Dicks says he suffered from post-traumatic stress for years until Elysha convinced him to seek counseling. He says he finds the act of writing to be therapeutic.
"Maybe not while I'm actually writing, but as I look back on the process, I think it is therapeutic, yeah," he says. "And I definitely write every day. I was writing when Elysha went into contractions with Clara. I'd time the contractions, type a few lines, and do it again."
Dicks started several novels but, in his self-critical fashion, determined that "by chapter three I could see they were crap." He laughs and says he's also deleted all of these efforts so that, when he actually does die, Elysha can't attempt to sell the manuscripts.
When he finally finished a novel - "Something's Missing" - Dicks set out to secure an agent with the same orderly discipline.
"So many writers get eight or 10 rejections or something and just give up," he says. "That's half the battle. I made a list of a hundred agents and got to work. If I'd been rejected by all those, I had a list of a hundred more. Why go to the trouble of writing a novel if you're not going to see it all the way through?"
Obviously, Dicks did get a representative and has had success. He recently finished his third novel, "Chicken Shack," which will be published in a year, and is already at work on a fourth. In the meantime, life with the family is good. He and Elysha still enjoy teaching, and he runs a DJ business with his best childhood friend.
When his students ask about his books and whether he'll leave them to be a full-time author, Dicks, who was the West Hartford Teacher of the Year in 2005, assures them he still loves his day job.
"Even at that age, a lot of my kids have actually started writing novels," he says. "I guess they figure, 'If that idiot can publish a book …'"
If you go:
WHO: Novelist Matthew Dicks
WHAT: Discusses and signs copies of his new book, "Unexpectedly, Milo"
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE: Bank Square Books, 55 West Main St., Mystic
MORE INFO: (860) 536-3795, banksquarebooks.com, matthewdicks.com.